"Like most people, I've just stumbled into things," says local filmmaker Russ Forster, whose most recent project, the tribute-band documentary Tributary, just came out on DVD. Before stumbling into filmmaking, he played music, ran a label, and published a popular zine. Throughout all these endeavors, Forster, who turns 40 this week, has stubbornly planted himself as far outside mainstream consumer culture as he can manage. In 2000 he pulled the plug on what was arguably his best-known project, 8-Track Mind, a decade-old zine dedicated to eight-track tapes--it had become too successful, he says.
"With the advent of eBay it became very collector oriented," says Forster. "In 2000 the idea of eight-tracks having value to them was not as laughable as it was in 1990," when the tapes were mostly collecting dust in thrift stores. Besides, he says, he was never interested in nostalgia or kitsch, qualities that motivate many of today's obsessive on-line collectors. "I liked the recycling aspect. Most people thought it was junk that should be thrown out, and I was recovering the stuff and finding uses for it, so it wasn't having to fill up landfills."
Forster developed his contempt for consumerism as an economics student at the University of Chicago. "I think I learned what I did not want to do with my life, both as a job and a mind-set," he says. He played in a couple of bands, including a new-wave cover act called the Generics and an original pop outfit called the Clay Midgets (which later changed its name to American Slang). Forster envisioned himself emulating Elvis Costello, recording a professional-sounding demo and signing with a major label.
Then he discovered the city's underground rock scene. "Seeing Big Black, with all of their equipment falling apart and Steve [Albini] blabbing on about antivivisection and stuff made me realize, 'Oh, there's this other world; it's pretty fun and maybe there's no money in it, but at least I can do what I want and get away with it,'" says Forster. Within a few years he'd left new wave behind to form Fudge Tunnel, a clamorous indie-rock band featuring guitarist "Dread" Scott Tyler, the artist who'd go on to create the controversial 1989 installation What Is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag?
Good fortune smiled upon Forster in 1986: he inherited a considerable amount of money (he won't say how much) that would fund his many future projects. (He's remained thrifty in his day-to-day life, however, paying the bills by doing odd jobs--working in a copy shop, say, or videotaping weddings.) He started his first business, Underdog Records, that year. The label released music by his own combos (Fudge Tunnel and, later, Spongetunnel) as well as local punk bands like Impulse Manslaughter, I.D. Under, and Friends of Betty--the band that would become Red Red Meat and featured drummer John Rowan, aka Urge Overkill's Blackie Onassis. The first Screeching Weasel LP also came out on Underdog.
But by the end of the decade Forster was tired of playing and releasing music. "I guess it was an experience, but it started to lose its charm," he says. He turned Underdog into a punk-oriented collective, gradually giving up all control and ownership. (The imprint became more financially successful than when he owned it.) He played his last regular gigs as a member of the noise band End Result.
By then Forster had developed a new obsession. Back in 1987 a friend had given him an eight-track player and some tapes; he was immediately intrigued. "Tapes would break and it was frustrating, but I saw them as a challenge," he says. "There were really great eight-tracks that you could find in thrift stores at the time, like a GTOs tape for 40 cents."
By 1989 he and a small group of friends were hosting weekly disco parties at the Fireside Bowl, where attendees would dress in 70s thrift-store duds, dance to music played on eight-tracks, and bowl. While on tour in Boston he ran into a like-minded crew of eight-track fans at a thrift store; they were also hosting disco parties. "I started thinking maybe this is happening in a lot of different places in the country and everyone thinks that they're the only ones," says Forster. "My intention was to get all of these scenes communicating with each other." He was right--8-Track Mind took off almost immediately; his PO box was stuffed with long detailed testimonials from other eight-track fans. At the zine's peak, he received 80 such letters a year.
Meanwhile Forster had developed an interest in filmmaking; he'd acted in a few shorts and made a few of his own. In March 1994 he and a friend named Dan Sutherland, who'd just invested in a 16-millimeter camera, took off on a monthlong 10,000-mile road trip, filming short profiles of some of the characters featured in the zine--a documentary on what made eight-track nuts tick. Within a year So Wrong They're Right, which ran Forster about 20 grand, was ready to go.
The film won the prize for best feature-length documentary at the 1995 Chicago Underground Film Festival. But Forster decided that working only the festival circuit would limit his audience, so he returned to his punk roots, touring the country in a van and showing the film himself in rock clubs, microtheaters, even homes when necessary. In 1997 it was released on video by Provisional, the company owned by Joe Carducci, author of Rock and the Pop Narcotic, and it's sold a few hundred copies.
Tributary started in 1996 as a collaboration with Sutherland, Jeff Economy, and Darren Hacker, but that partnership soon dissolved. Forster says his cohorts were more interested in mocking the musicians, while he wanted to find out what motivated them. He shot footage around the country, while the others focused more on Chicago-area acts. The friction increased after Forster assembled a rough cut that he calls "a total disaster. It was clear to me that there were two different movies and they should ultimately be made separately." So he kept his footage, gave the others theirs, and set about making his movie his way. "It was a painful, bitter divorce. As far as I know they still hate my guts." (Economy and Hacker released their doc, An Incredible Simulation, in 2000.)
Shot on HI-8 video, Tributary is more amateurish and unfocused than So Wrong They're Right, but it's a heartfelt investigation of its subject. While some musicians sound like they're describing their jobs (in some cases they are), others, like the keyboardist in a Yes tribute band, view their bands as creative outlets, taking pride in the little things that make them different. Forster held one-off screenings in and around Chicago in 2001 and conducted a short west-coast tour that fall, but the DVD release provides the first chance most people have had to see the flick.
At present Forster isn't working on any specific projects, but he's kicking around the idea of publishing a book called The Journal of Obsolete Technology, an 8-Track Mind-style overview of people who appreciate outdated gadgetry. But he's finding it a bit harder to live outside the mainstream. "I can't be as happy-go-lucky with money as I used to be," he says. "I've kind of shot my wad with these projects. I still have a little nest egg, but it gets smaller each time I do something new."
Forster will celebrate the release of Tributary with a party at Quimby's Bookstore, 1854 W. North, on Saturday, January 18. He'll screen part of the film, discuss its making, and perform a four-song Carly Simon tribute. Call 773-342-0910 for more information.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Joe Klein.